The O'Neill family has been serving Harford County for seven generations

Agriculture continues to thrive in Harford County through land preservation, Aimee O'Neill says

Aimee O'Neill and her siblings, who make up the sixth generation of the O'Neill family in Harford County, are committed to an ethos of hard work and serving the community, a legacy passed down by the O'Neills who came before them and one they are working to pass on to their children.

"What's really most important to us is our legacy and the fact that we can continue on traditions that are important and valuable to the community and productive," Aimee O'Neill, 59, said during a recent visit to Springwood Farm in Forest Hill, where she and her six siblings grew up.

Her family can trace its roots in America back to the late 1700s, when Henry W. O'Neill immigrated from Ireland. Her lineage pre-dates the American Revolution through families that married into the O'Neill clan.

Henry O'Neill first came to Baltimore, later met and married Mary Mason, of York, Pa., and they settled in the Rocks community in Harford County, according to Aimee.

His descendants, including Aimee's grandfather, Howard, and father, John, were prominent figures in Harford County's business and legal communities and as elected officials.

Aimee said her family is only "tangentially" related to War of 1812 legend John O'Neill, though. He is known as "the hero of Havre de Grace" for his efforts to hold off British invaders by manning a small cannon single-handed as they attacked the city from the Susquehanna River in 1813.

He later became the first keeper of the Concord Point Lighthouse.

"Our relationship to John O'Neill, who was the keeper of the lighthouse, is not direct," Aimee said. Her grandfather's grandfather, who was named John Hardin O'Neill, lived in Havre de Grace during the 1800s and was a Confederate officer during the Civil War.

John Hardin was the son of Henry O'Neill, according to Aimee. He married Mary Wells Green, who was born in Baltimore and had relatives who lived around Havre de Grace.

Green's grandfather, John Green Sr., served during the Revolution, and his wife, Cassandra Smithson, lived in Norrisville, according to Aimee.

Aimee O'Neill's family is also well known in the religious community as active members and leaders of St. Ignatius, Hickory, the oldest Roman Catholic church still operating in the Baltimore Archdiocese. The church was dedicated in 1792, and the Cain and Kean families, ancestors of Aimee's grandmother, Madeline Robinson O'Neill, were among the founding members of the congregation.

"The relationship with St. Ignatius goes all the way back," Aimee said.

Her father, John, was heavily involved in preserving the original church building, which today is called the historic church, after it had been closed in 1967 because of structural problems – the building was reopened in 1969.

Aimee's uncle, Daniel O'Neill, was "instrumental" in getting the new and much larger main church built in 2001, she said.

Farming legacy

The church is about three miles south of the O'Neill family farm, which is off of Grafton Shop Road. Aimee's parents, John H. O'Neill Sr. and Lois Schnepfe O'Neill, purchased Springwood Farm in 1959.

"This is where Mom and Dad raised seven children," Aimee said. "He didn't quite make his dad's number of eight."

Aimee lives in Norrisville, but her brother, Patrick O'Neill, owns and operates the farm, and several siblings – Carolyn O'Neill Nelson, Harry O'Neill and Mary Lou O'Neill Hoopes – live on the property in their own homes.

Patrick does not raise crops or livestock; the pasture and tillable land are leased to another prominent Harford farming family, the Rigdons.

"If I could make a living farming this place, I would do it," Patrick O'Neill, 51, said.

Rigdon Farms LLC, which is headquartered in Jarrettsville and was founded in 1728, grows crops and raises livestock on land in Harford County and on the Eastern Shore, according to the company website.

Patrick, in the tradition of his father, works as an auctioneer through his company, the Patrick O'Neill Auction Co.. He conducts auctions in Harford County and in the Washington, D.C. area.

Aimee is also in the auction business as president of O'Neill Enterprises, a Forest Hill auction, real estate and accounting firm founded by their father.

"We all worked for Daddy in the auction [business] from the time we could do anything functional," said Aimee.

Patrick remembers "doing serious jobs" at auctions, such as cashiering and clerking, at a young age. He and his siblings also entertained the children of clients who came to the farmhouse for his father's accounting services.

John O'Neill, who died in July of 2002, spent 10 years as a Harford County commissioner during the 1960s and '70s. He was the first president of the Harford County Council from 1972 to 1974, when the county adopted home rule charter government.

His father, Howard, represented Harford County in Annapolis as a state senator from 1947 to 1951 and worked as an attorney. His mother, Madeline, was the daughter of Maryland's former attorney general, Thomas Hall Robinson. She also owned a dress shop.

Aimee said her grandfather was "very involved in bringing Bel Air into modern times" by bringing electric and water service to the town and helping to develop Bel Air's race track, now the site of Harford Mall.

John O'Neill, one of eight children, was raised in Bel Air in a house his father built on Williams Street. That house has been the headquarters of The Mann House, a nonprofit addiction recovery center, since 1971.

John was exposed to farming as a teenager, according to a lengthy article published in The Aegis shortly after he died. He learned all aspects of farming, including tilling the soil, slaughtering livestock and harvesting crops while working on the neighboring Kelly family farm, the home of the historic Liriodendron mansion.

He served as a Navy gunnery officer in the Pacific theater during World War II. John and Lois, who was raised on a farm in Edgewood, married in 1945, and he went on to manage about 1,000 acres of farmland with his business partner.

The O'Neill farms could be seen all along Route 24 down to the I-95 interchange in Abingdon. The site of the present-day Constant Friendship shopping center was once a farm managed by the O'Neills, according to Aimee.

"He grew so many tomatoes," Patrick said of his father.

The tomatoes were bound for packing houses throughout Harford County, Patrick recalled.

"He just loved farming," Aimee said. "It was his passion – he could have done most anything in life, but he loved farming."

John O'Neill extended that passion for farming to the community in multiple ways, such as supporting the 4-H youth agriculture program, helping found the Steppingstone Farm Museum near Havre de Grace and helping to reinvigorate the Harford County Farm Fair in the late 1980s.

"Daddy was quite a generous person with his time and his expertise," said Aimee, who is co-chair of the fair board.

Patrick inherited the love of farming from his father, and he purchased Springwood Farm from his parents' estate after his mother died.

"I loved farming," Patrick said. "I just really enjoyed it."

Patrick, Aimee and their siblings, as well as their cousins, grew up working on the farm, doing jobs such as baling and stacking hay and straw.

"I think it was a great way to grow up," Patrick said.

He said his father "never relented – he was always pushing us to work harder and do more."

Charles Henry "Hank" McComas III, 66, is the nephew of John, son of John's sister, Betty O'Neill McComas, and husband of state Del. Susan McComas.

He got one taste of working in his uncle's hay barn and decided that was enough – McComas is a retired partner in Celerius Inc., a computer consulting and networking firm in Bel Air.

"Uncle John said everybody ought to come up and bale hay at least one in their life, and that was enough for me," McComas said.

He spoke fondly of his late uncle.

"He had a big voice, he had a big personality, he made a big space in the world, and when he was gone he left a big hole," McComas said. "It's a hole that's filled with good deeds and memories and family."

Continued community service

Cousin Kathy O'Neill Buechel, a retired physical therapist who lives in Bel Air, is the daughter of James F. O'Neill, a brother of John and a former mayor of Bel Air who also worked as an attorney. Another brother, Harry O'Neill, was a Harford County District Court judge.

"This was the site of many family reunions over the years," Buechel said of her uncle John's farm.

Carolyn O'Neill Nelson, one of John's daughters, did not choose farming as a career, but she served the community for nearly 30 years as an elementary school teacher.

Nelson, 64, taught at Homestead-Wakefield Elementary School in Bel Air from 1974 to 1976, and then spent the next 12 years raising her three children and operating a home-based day care center at Springwood Farm.

She returned to the classroom in 1988, serving as a kindergarten teacher at Bel Air Elementary School until she retired in 2014.

"I feel very blessed . . . to inspire and encourage children into the love of learning," Nelson said.

Her son, Josh, is an executive vice president at Chesapeake Environmental Management in Bel Air, and he is a member of St. Ignatius.

"As the second grandson of John O'Neill, I'm proud to continue the foundation that the O'Neill family has lived by for countless generations in Harford County – Faith, Family and Community Service," he wrote in an emailed statement.

He said he is "proud of raising my children on the same family farm in Forest Hill that my Grandfather ran and where I grew up as a child. And I'm proud that I'm able to work in my community as an Executive Vice President at CEM where the company's values are the same as mine."

Farming continues to thrive

Aimee's parents helped lead Harford County through a major post-World War II shift from a mostly-rural area to a suburban community teeming with subdivisions and shopping centers built on former farms.

Aimee remembers being able to ride her horse from the family farm to Rocks State Park or to Route 152, which she could not do today because of heavy traffic.

She echoed her father's views on development when he was in county government, noting "we can't close the door" on growth.

"That's not forward thinking," she said. "What we can do is work together and manage to be good stewards [of the land]."

Aimee lauded the ongoing cooperation between farmers and the county government to preserve agricultural land. Her family's farm, as well as neighboring farms, are part of the county's Agricultural Preservation Program, meaning they are protected from development by a permanent easement to ensure the land is used only for agricultural purposes.

More than 49,000 acres has been preserved, as of May 1, through county and state agricultural preservation programs, according to the Harford County website.

Aimee said ag preservation has led to Harford farms being used for a variety of purposes other than the traditional crop production, including agritourism, wineries, growing specialty crops for farm-to-table restaurants and cultivating locally-grown hops and grains for craft beer brewing – Aimee's brother, Harry, is a partner in Bel Air's Independent Brewing Co.

"There's a lot of opportunity for the ag community to continue to thrive," Aimee said.

Patrick noted "you can't survive on a 100-acre farm through traditional farming methods," so farmers must have a niche specialty.

He noted another advantage of agricultural preservation is that it gives county residents open spaces they can visit – he has seen people drive by his farm and stop to watch the sunset.

"There's no space to do that where they live," Patrick said.

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